Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Hallie Blejewski - Connecticut, USA

“When I started college, I knew I wanted to be an ethnomusicologist and study music and culture as a career. I didn’t know what type of music I would specialize in. I was very inspired by my ethnomusicology professor, and he was the one who first suggested that I go to Trinidad. I fell in love with steelband music the first time I heard it. The day I bought my first tenor pan from Gill’s Pan Shop was definitely a turning point.” 

She is an intellectual - multi-talented, thoughtful and progressive...  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  panist, musician, educator, PhD candidate,  and performing artist Hallie Blejewski shares her reflections,  journey and views on Pan, and the steelpan art form.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Hallie Blejewski?”

Hallie B. - “Right now, the most important thing in my life is writing my dissertation!”

WST - “How did you first become introduced to the steelpan instrument? Take us through your steelpan music journey?”

Hallie B. “I didn’t know much about pan until I attended Trinity College in Hartford, CT, which has a Global Learning Site in St. Augustine, Trinidad. I studied in Trinidad during my sophomore and junior years and took classes at the University of the West Indies. The summer before I first went to Trinidad, I received a summer research grant to work with the Hartford Steel Symphony.”

WST - “The steelpan is now an integral part of your life path. When did you first come to believe that you could both love the Pan and perhaps even make a career out of it?”

Hallie B. - “When I started college, I knew I wanted to be an ethnomusicologist and study music and culture as a career. I didn’t know what type of music I would specialize in. I was very inspired by my ethnomusicology professor, and he was the one who first suggested that I go to Trinidad. I fell in love with steelband music the first time I heard it. The day I bought my first tenor pan from Gill’s Pan Shop was definitely a turning point.”

Hallie Blejewski
Hallie Blejewski

WST - “Were there any obstacles along the way, or were you cautioned or perhaps dissuaded from focusing solely on the steelpan instrument as your passion in life?”

Hallie B. - “There were many obstacles, but I also found encouragement. Some people have suggested to me that I find a more “practical” career. It’s often difficult to find support for the arts, and especially for steelpan, an instrument many people in the US are not familiar with. One challenge was returning to Trinity College after studying in Trinidad– they did not have a steelband! I had to start my own. When I first started talking about it, I’m not sure anybody believed I could do it. During my fundraising period, I received many replies of, “We cannot help, but good luck with your project.” Eventually, though, I raised enough money to buy instruments and was able to lead the ensemble.”

WST - “You play other instruments as well; talk about this?”

Hallie B. - “Through studying ethnomusicology and meeting people who play all kinds of music, I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I played percussion in the Trinity College samba ensemble for several years, which was always so much fun. During my time at Wesleyan, I’ve studied Javanese gamelan and South Indian vocal music.”

WST - “You are the Director of WesleyPan at Wesleyan University. How did that get started? Is Pan popular at Wesleyan University?”

Hallie B. - “The Wesleyan University steelband was started many years ago by Gage Averill, but when I started graduate school, it had been dormant for several years. I led it from 2013-2016—I’m away from Wesleyan this year so I can travel and do fieldwork—and I’ll be returning after I finish all my research. At first, there were only 15 students because very few people knew about the ensemble. However, as we started performing around campus, WesleyPan grew very quickly! One semester, 120 students auditioned.”

WST - “You are currently pursuing a PhD at the University, specializing in steelpan music in Trinidad and Africa. What are the most significant points you've notice in terms of development of Pan in Africa?”

Hallie B. - “It is always very interesting to see how such diverse traditions develop around the same instrument. Pan is extremely versatile. What I have found particularly fascinating about African pan traditions in particular is the places where there has been limited contact with Trinidad but through the efforts of dedicated individuals, the art form really takes off and thrives. Two examples are Nigeria and South Africa, where pan has seen rapid growth in popularity. In South Africa, the pan tradition developed largely based on a handful of instruments brought to the country in the 1960s—it wasn’t until many years later that South Africans could visit Trinidad to see what a Trinidadian panyard looks like. There are enough steelpan traditions in Africa to write a book (or several) about – which is why I chose this topic for my dissertation!”

WST - “Who are your music inspirations and influences - not only relative to Pan, but also in wider music genres?”

Hallie B. - “When I was growing up, my favorites were the Talking Heads and David Bowie. I have varied interests. My favorite composer right now is Frederic Rzewski and I’ve done several of his pieces with my steelbands. I listen to a lot of soca.”

WST - “From your perspective what is greatest challenge facing Pan globally?”

Hallie B. - “In the US, the current political climate does not place much value on the arts, and it seems to be part of a global trend. Funding for music in schools and communities is lacking. People who aren’t familiar with pan often don’t realize the immense amount of work and skill it takes to keep a steelband thriving. They see a short performance and don’t understand the hours and hours of work it takes to put it all together.”

WST - “You are the president of The North End Artist Cooperative. Tell us about NEAC.”

Hallie B. - “The North End Artist Cooperative is a space for artists of all sorts to live and work, and we run a gallery in downtown Middletown, CT called MAC650. My goal is to bring a variety of visual arts and performances to the neighborhood that residents might not otherwise get to see.”

WST - “Discuss the 'track' which led you first to Trinity College and then UWI and now Wesleyan for your PhD - how did it all come together?”

Hallie B. - “I think it was fate! I chose Trinity knowing nothing about the music department, and I first met the ethnomusicology professor when I accidentally left some papers in a locked room. I didn’t realize that asking him to open a door for me would be such an apt metaphor. I took a Javanese gamelan class at Wesleyan when I was 15 and it always felt like home to me. When I found out I was accepted to the graduate program I didn’t even consider other offers.”

WST - “You've experienced steelpan in your home of the USA, also at the University of West Indies, and also in Africa; share some comparative observations regarding steelpan in these three environments”

Hallie B. - “There are so many regional variations. Everywhere I go, I love hearing local popular and traditional music played on pan. I think the biggest surprises I have experienced are when I find things that are the same! Last July in South Africa, I saw an ensemble setting up that had a mix of marimbas and steelpans, and I was very curious about what music they would play. I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard the opening bars – they were playing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” a song I’ve taught to many ensembles in the US!”

Summit Steel
Summit Steel

WST - “Do you have any advice for young women now coming into the steelband art form?”

Hallie B. - “When I was first starting out, I got very frustrated when people didn’t seem to take me seriously because of my age and gender. I had to learn very quickly to project confidence. Even if you think others don’t believe in you, show them that you believe in yourself. Don’t let fear of making mistakes hold you back.”

WST - “In your opinion, what do you think is the place of the annual Panorama competition, with respect to the overall art form in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Hallie B. - “I love that Panorama is a shared experience for so many steelband enthusiasts. Festivals and competitions bring people together so they can learn from each other and be inspired. I do think it’s important not to forget that there is more than just Panorama and that there is value in smaller-scale steelband experiences as well.”

WST - “If there was one thing in Pan you could change immediately what would that be?”

Hallie B. - “I wish the instruments were easier to move around!”

Their Story, Their Voice, Their Life, Their Dreams - click for more stories

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